Posted on April 5, 2006

Aspirant Farmers Reap Ruin

Prega Govender, Sunday Times (Johnnesburg), April 2

Eight years ago La Boheme was the envy of Limpopo’s mango farmers.

Situated in Trichardtsdal, neighbouring Hoedspruit and Tzaneen, which is collectively the country’s biggest mango-producing area, the 450ha farm boasted an annual turnover of about R3-million.

At the time, La Boheme’s owner, Leon Bondesio, built a palatial double-storey house on the farm with sweeping views of the Drakensberg escarpment.

In 1998, the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs bought the farm for R4.5-million and handed it over to 383 aspirant black farmers as part of the national land reform programme.

The initiative, known as a Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (SLAG), made available a grant of R16000 per household, so that residents could pool their money to buy a farm.

The purchase of La Boheme by the then Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs, Derek Hanekom, was lauded in Parliament through a notice of motion congratulating Hanekom for “signalling” the ANC-led government’s commitment to implement a land redistribution policy.

But today, La Boheme’s mango orchards, comprising around 50000 trees, are untended and overgrown with dense alien vegetation. The double-storey house, which was to have been converted into an upmarket lodge, has been stripped bare.

Bit by bit, the new owners removed the ceilings, doors and windows, using the timber for improvements to their informal dwellings and for firewood.

All that is left of the once thriving commercial farm’s equipment are three broken tractors and a rusty plough.

The farm, which is administered by the Calais Communal Property Association (CCPA), has never made a profit since it changed ownership — and is now worth a mere R920000.

La Boheme is among 71 unproductive farms in Limpopo, bought under the SLAG scheme, that are now being targeted by the province’s MEC for Agriculture, Dikeledi Magadzi.

She admitted to the Sunday Times this week that the government’s SLAG scheme had been a “failure”.

“Most of these farms are lying barren. We admit our mistake and indeed we will be able to correct this mistake.”

She said her department had recently started the process of stripping farmers who were not interested in farming of their ownership rights.

Magadzi described her observations during her visit to eight farms in Tzaneen and Waterberg as “very disgusting”.

“At one of the farms there were dry mango trees, which tells you that no one bothered to water them. At another farm, I saw tractors that had ‘collapsed’.”

Emerging farmers told her that borehole machines and tractor parts had been stolen.

“I don’t have room for lazy farmers,” she said. “My message to them is to ship out.”

Magadzi admitted that one of the major reasons for the collapse of the farms was the lack of funds for input costs, mechanisation and capital projects.

La Boheme ran itself into the ground because of bitter infighting among beneficiaries and a lack of knowledge and expertise about farming.

The farm’s first manager, Ori Manthata, was booted out after eight months over allegations that he stole R48000.

Manthata subsequently cleared his name after successfully suing the CCPA for defamation of character. He was awarded R70000 in damages.

“When I left the farm there was about R130000 in CCPA’s bank account,” he said. “I never stole a cent.”

This week he was stunned to discover that the bulk of the farm’s assets had disappeared.

Among the assets he claimed were still on the farm when he left were six tractors, a four-ton truck, two ploughs, three trailers and three expensive bakkies.

During his short tenure as manager, he harvested mangoes worth R63000 and cultivated tomatoes and baby marrows worth R42000.

Now, except for about 15 beneficiaries battling to eke out a living by planting mealies on tiny plots, production on the farm has come to a halt.

After Manthata left, beneficiaries, impatient at not receiving any benefits, chopped up the ceilings and gouged out the window frames of the house.

He said the actions of the owners made him ashamed to be one of the beneficiaries.

“When the farm was bought, I thought my dream had finally come true. But now the place is a complete mess.”

He blamed the farm’s collapse on bad management and owners who were not willing to “put in an honest day’s work”.

A beneficiary and an executive member of the CCPA, Hamilton Mangena, 28, admitted that beneficiaries lacked the skills and experience to run the farm.

“We need large amounts of money from the government to turn it around.”

Mangena said they had received summons from the Land Bank demanding payment towards a debt of R1.1-million.

Beneficiaries told him to his face that they had removed items from the farmhouse because “it was their share”.

“They said the farm was useless to them because it was not making a profit,” Mangena said.

The chairman of the CCPA, Patrick Matjokotja, blamed the government for the farm’s collapse, saying the beneficiaries had not been trained to run it.

“The beneficiaries are not interested in farming,” he said.

Another owner of La Boheme, 62-year-old Joseph Moagi, said production stopped because the farm had no money. “Workers cannot work on the farm if they don’t get paid,” he said.

Theo de Jager, chairman of the land affairs committee at Agri-SA, blamed the farm’s failure on poor management, the lack of a business plan and beneficiaries displaying apathy towards the running of the farm.

“Three weeks after La Boheme was transferred to the new owners, the farm experienced a fire. One of the owners told me he would not be able to fight the fire because it was a Sunday and there was a big soccer match.”